Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve: A case of privatising profits and socialising costs?

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The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center) backs the call for Selangor Menteri Besar (MB) Amirudin Shari to come clean and explain the shocking decision to degazette and destroy 536.7 hectares (865 football fields) of one of the last remaining peat swamp forests in southern Selangor.

We add to the chorus of public outcry over this decision done in secret, with the decision hidden for three months before it was announced. We know that the wages of secrecy are often corruption, and we know that in secrecy, errors detected will flourish and subvert.

It bears reminding, that the plan to degazette the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR) received 45,423 objections, overwhelming public attendance to a last-minute town hall session, more online petitions that finally accumulated around 130,000 signatures, and nearly 1,500 emails to Selangor state assemblypersons to express opposition to the degazettement, as well as a massive media campaign across all major local media outlets.

In addition, 56 representatives in the Selangor State Assembly (DUN) across the political divide voted unanimously to support a motion to protect all forest reserves in Selangor in November last year, including the MB and the elected representatives who sit on the Selangor State Executive Council. Several parliamentary representatives have also voiced their objections.

Yet, the Selangor government has been adamant about degazetting the forest reserve and giving up the land to private property developers for commercial mixed development. So why? What would lead an elected government to disregard public opinion and risk public outrage?

Adding to the opacity of the issue is how the justification for the degazettement seems to have changed as needed. This raises several questions that puts the spotlight on poor governance and accountability deficit in the running of the state.

  1. Where is the accountability, transparency and consultative process over the degazettement?

Why was the decision kept secret despite the level of public interest involved?

Selangor state executive councillor for environment Hee Loy Sian revealed that there were no objections by the Department of Environment, Forestry Department, Drainage and Irrigation Department, Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan), Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA), Dean of Faculty of Forestry and Environment of Universiti Putra Malaysia, among others, during technical meetings.

However, when environmental group PEKA (Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam) submitted an official request through the Freedom of Information (State of Selangor) Enactment 2010 for a copy of the Forestry Department’s report on the KLNFR, their request was rejected. Outcome documents from the town hall session were also not made available to attendees.

If the benefits of development outweigh the costs of degazettement, why are the technical reports not made available to allay public fears?

In recent months, several public officers in local councils around Selangor have fallen under the dragnet of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The residents of Kuala Langat alleged that former Presidents of the then-Kuala Langat District Council may be implicated.

Orang Asli communities living around the KLNFR also reportedly faced intimidation to force their support for the degazettement of the forest, in blatant disregard for their right to indigenous ancestral lands.

With the lack of transparency and accountability, the public is left to suspect the interference of “higher powers” in the degazettement of the KLNFR, even as the MB himself admitted the presence of external influence in illicit dealings in the state.

  1. Why and how was Gabungan Indah Sdn Bhd selected as the developer?

According to the Companies Commission of Malaysia and other reports, Gabungan Indah (incorporated Dec 2, 2020) is owned wholly by Vibrantscape Sdn Bhd (incorporated Dec 1, 2020), which is, in turn, wholly owned by Perdana Parkcity, the developer of Desa Parkcity in Kuala Lumpur. Both Gabungan Indah and Vibrantscape are shelf companies with only RM1 as paid-up capital.

This comes after Menteri Besar Selangor Incorporated (MBI Selangor) came under fire for conflict of interest when it initially applied for this degazettement, even as the MB himself sits on the decision-making committee.

In March last year, the Selangor MB revealed that Titian Jutaria Sdn Bhd, linked to the Selangor royal family, and MBI Selangor had proposed to develop the KLNFR. Titian Jutaria has since been dissolved.

Private entities that stand to benefit from this degazettement must be selected based on merit in a transparent manner with no undue influence over government procedures.

  1. Who benefits and who loses?

The disruption of the ecology of the area could very well lead to environmental disasters in the future. The area is categorised as an Environmental Sensitive Area (ESA) Rank 1 in the National Physical Plan (no development, agriculture or logging), and also a Disaster Risk ESA as a peat swamp in the Selangor Structure Plan 2035. The Kuala Langat Local Plan 2030 also categorised the KLNFR as a zone where development is prohibited.

Besides that, after the degazettement, project proponents would still be required to submit Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, where applicable, to resolve environmental issues to develop the land. However, EIA guidelines state that project proponents are encouraged not to select sites located in or adjacent to ESAs.

This degazettement by the state clearly violates regulations, guidelines, plan documents, and also Malaysia’s commitments under existing international treaties such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

And in the event of a disaster, such as the deadly floods that recently hit Yan in Kedah, the costs and risks will be borne by the people and the government. This is a clear case of privatising profits and socialising costs.

We demand answers on the real hidden hands behind this venture.

As such, C4 Center demands that the Selangor state government:

1)    Make public the technical reports on the KLNFR due to the high level of public interest in the case, and the high health and climate risks to be faced by Selangor residents should the degazettement go ahead;

2)    Respect the people’s wishes and reverse their decision to degazette the KLNFR;

3)    Understand and uphold the customary land rights of the indigenous Temuan communities residing around the KLNFR;

4)    Explain how the decisions were made, the suspicious manner in which it was carried out, and the reasons for why the issue kept secret for a full 3 months. Are there higher hands involved, and who was ultimately involved?

We remind the state government that it must act in the best interest of the public by balancing the needs of economic development and environmental protection, and that there must be no fear in being transparent.

The public needs of poorer forest-dependent communities must not be neglected in favour of the private needs of elites. The development of the economy must create value for the benefit of all, and not merely to facilitate the extraction of value for the owners of capital and assets. Technical agencies should also be given the independence to do their due diligence without fear or favour.

With Malaysia’s culture of entrenched corruption, conflation of politics and business, and conflicts of interest, the only way to curb corruption and enhance public confidence is by upholding transparency and accountability.

Media statement by Center to Combat Corruption & Cronyism (C4 Center), a non-profit centre dedicated to fighting corruption, cronyism and its related problems.